Article In Brief:
- The Problem: Nonprofits are not advocating for the issues that concern their mission and are therefore missing out on an opportunity to have a bigger impact.
- The Context: Nonprofits steer clear of lobbying for many reasons having to do with knowledge, experience, and stigma. For example, many nonprofit leaders don’t know that lobbying is 100% legal for nonprofits.
- The Solution: The author presents four steps nonprofits can take now to get smarter about lobbying: accept the importance of lobbying, get the facts, meet with officials, and join a trade association.
When it comes to lobbying, 501(c)(3) nonprofits fall into two categories: those that do and those that don’t.
Most don’t, for reasons that are mostly off-base. Often, nonprofits steer clear of lobbying because:
- Nonprofit leaders don’t know that it is 100% legal.
- They aren’t familiar with the easy-to-understand legal rules that govern nonprofit lobbying activity.
- The word “lobbying” has a cringeworthy connotation. This is in spite of its purpose, which is to influence the hearts and minds of elected officials about laws that affect our organizations and communities.
- People mistakenly believe it will require a lot of time and money.
- Folks have no clue how to do it.
But there’s another, even vaguer, reason many nonprofits don’t lobby. I’ve heard it time and again: “lobbying doesn’t fit within our mission.” Every time I hear a nonprofit leader say this, I have to take a breath. Because the reality is that laws are passed every day that have enormous consequences for our organizations and for the well-being of the people we serve.
Let’s take, for example, the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC), which expired in December of last year.
A quick breakdown: during the pandemic, the 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP) increased the maximum Child Tax Credit. For parents with kids under 6, the CTC increased from $2,000 to $3,600; for parents with kids 6-17, the CTC increased from $2,000 to $3,000, the first time 17-year-olds were included. The ARP also specified that instead of the CTC being a year-end tax credit, eligible families got half of the money up front in the form of monthly checks of up to $250 (for older kids) and $300 (for younger ones). Through the expanded CTC, an additional 27 million families with kids were served!
Perhaps unsurprisingly to those of us who work in the nonprofit sector, these monthly payments reduced childhood poverty in the U.S. by 30% and had “no discernable negative impact on parental employment.”
So what does this expanded CTC have to do with nonprofits?
Well, unless your organization is bucking the trend by paying every single one of your staff a wage that allows them to comfortably pay their rent, fill up their gas tank, put food on their table, and buy other essentials (medicine, diapers, etc.), you should be advocating for the PERMANENT extension of the expanded CTC. Quite frankly, this law affects YOUR organization’s bottom line because it increases employee productivity. It’s a simple fact that people can concentrate on work when they aren’t worrying about how to pay their bills.
If that issue somehow doesn’t seem applicable your organization’s mission or staff, there are many other issues at the local, state, and federal level that directly impact your nonprofit and the folks you serve, no matter who they may be. Which is all to say that if you are a nonprofit, you should be actively engaged in lobbying.
So where do you begin?
1. Accept lobbying.
Start with the premise that lobbying is a noble act that fits snugly within the mission of your organization.
However, this acceptance can’t stop with you; it should filter down to reach every member of your nonprofit. You should be engaging in ongoing conversations with your staff and board about the major issues that are affecting your organization and its constituents. These conversations should include making lists of changes in policy or funding that would enable your work to be more effective or would improve the lives of people in your community. Ultimately, you might choose one that’s a top priority to pursue.
2. Familiarize yourself with lobbying rules for nonprofits.
One of the biggest obstacles preventing nonprofits from lobbying is knowing the rules. Don’t take my word for it; it’s been documented in academic studies. If the very idea makes you or your board start to hyperventilate about the prospect of the IRS taking away your tax-exempt status, you can pretty much rest assured that there is a slim-to-none chance of that happening.
There are several options for learning lobbying rules. I would suggest a small team of board and staff learn these rules together so that this team can teach everyone who is affiliated with your organization. There are many different resources available to you, including:
- The Rules of the Game Podcast
- Information from the National Council on Nonprofits
- My video on how “Lobbying is Not a 4 Letter Word”
Once your team feels comfortable with the rules, then continue the conversation at the board level to share what you’ve learned.
3. Network with elected officials.
Make a plan to get to know every elected official who represents your district.
Quite simply, people respond to people. Putting together a simple plan to introduce your organization to the people who are elected to serve you will open the door to future conversations about things that you’d like to see happen or changed.
4. Join a trade organization.
If you’re not already a member, join a nonprofit trade association. Here are a few by state — Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York — but I’m sure there’s an awesome network wherever you live and work.
Trade associations are wonderful because they are on top of monitoring key legislative issues that impact nonprofits. They also rally the troops with updates on what action needs to be taken to address those issues. Essentially, they’re really great resources for nonprofits (and their lobbying efforts) as a whole!
There’s never been a more important time for each and every one of us take action. It’s better to be nervous about learning the steps to make change than to be nervous about the change that will happen if we do nothing. The time is now, and it starts with us.
Pat Libby is one of the nation’s leading experts on citizen lobbying campaigns. A long-time nonprofit leader, consultant, and self-described recovering academic, she is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, (Oxford University Press) which outlines the legal rules for nonprofit lobbying (in plain English), explains the basic about how the legislative process works, and shows readers how to put together a simple, low-cost, and effective lobbying campaign. This is Pat’s third book, following her previous publications: The Lobbying Strategy Handbook (Oxford) and Cases in Nonprofit Management (Sage). Pat has made it her mission to teach people how to create change through the legislative process. Her 10-step lobbying model—which she created while leading a nonprofit organization—has been used by novice citizen activists throughout the country to pass new laws, including many in California where she resides.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.